UPDATE: Dubious Alliance is now available on Kickstarter! Check it out and pledge!
Last weekend at Celesticon I had the privilege of sitting in to play a card game called Dubious Alliance with a few people and it’s creator, Brandon Raasch. I should mention that I was also on a panel on game design at Celesticon with Brandon, but I’d signed up for the playtest before I knew we’d be on the panel together.
At it’s core, Dubious Alliance is a “screw you” card trading game. The fluff is that each player is a member of a rampaging orc band, and as we pillage and conquer we’re competing and trading for the best loot. The actual mechanics work out so that you are forced to trade with others every so often, and character cards for each “Orc” that offer different strategic options to each player.
It’s very clearly a light-hearted, beer-and-pretzels kind of game. You aren’t meant to be agonizing over each card and playing a long game of strategy and cunning. No, what the game does particularly well is emergent narrative.
To digress for a moment (though trust me, it ties back in), I recently listened to an RPG Panelcast entitled “Game Design in Mind Control.” Towards the end of the panel, the presenters bring up the idea of emergent narrative, though they don’t name it as such. The example they give is a game of Clue. In Clue, there’s no strategic bonus to talking with a southern accent as you wander through the halls as Colonel Mustard, and nothing in the rules compels you to play Miss Scarlett as a sultry vixen. But, (some people at least) do anyway. Because it’s fun! And that’s emergent narrative, and really, as they bring up, probably the root of roleplaying in general.
Back to Dubious Alliance, the game does a great job of putting you into the role and mindset of an orc. There’s really no hard strategic value to it, but it’s a lot more fun if you give your cards colorful embellishments and try to talk up their worth to whatever buddies you’re trying to dupe. Furthermore, as you collect cards, you add them into the ‘story’ of your orc, and it’s very easy to see a tale of conquest, woe, betrayal, and orcyness literally being played onto the tabletop.